Alien Skin – The Secret Garden
Most people who grew up in the 1980s will likely recall the massive hit song, ‘Send Me An Angel’, by the Aussie quartet known as Real Life. The opening synth riff of that tune is one of the most famous in all synth-pop history. Led by frontman David Sterry and frenetic drummer extraordinaire, Danny Simcic, Real Life became one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s and early 1990s. Aside from the afore-mentioned international hit, Real Life scored hits in the dance clubs of the world with several tunes in their catalogue, most notably: ‘Catch Me I’m Falling’, ‘God Tonight’, and ‘Kiss The Ground’. In the mid-1990s, George Pappas took over synth duties from Steve Williams, who had inherited his post from Richard Zatorski, the band’s original synth guy. George brought with him a deep love of Kraftwerk, Japan, David Bowie, and a healthy dash of melancholy. In 1997, Real Life released the album Happy on an independent label in the US & displayed a renewed affinity for expertly-crafted synth-pop with a dark twist. This was Real Life’s first album featuring George Pappas as their go-to synth man. The album was notably darker in its feel & tone than its predecessors, but it also took the band in a refreshing modern direction. While not a re-invention of the wheel per se, Happy was a bold statement to the world that Real Life was back, and they meant business! This was due in large part to the addition of George Pappas. Real Life would tour all over the world between 1998 and 2000 to promote the release of Happy and the accompanying remix album, Happier.
Pappas would record one final studio album with Real Life, Imperfection, in 2003. This was followed by another stint of shows around the world to promote the album. Shortly thereafter, George struck out on his own with a new moniker of Alien Skin. In his new surrounding, George would be free to exercise his synth-inclined creativity to an extent he was unable to do within the framework of Real Life.
His debut release as Alien Skin arrived in 2008 in the form of the glorious Don’t Open Till Doomsday album. Fans were already aware that George was no slouch when it came to his synthesizer skills and arranging prowess, but the startling revelation that came with the Doomsday album was his absolutely angelic voice! His voice is an absolutely bewitching combination of Martin L. Gore and Bryan Ferry. It’s a silky blend of the ethereal and the earthy. In short, Alien Skin is the sort of experience fans of Martin Gore have long prayed for, but never received.
Alien Skin is quite possibly the best indie synth-pop/darkwave out there. Period! World-class without a doubt.
In 2010 George released the follow up, The Unquiet Grave, which mined even darker themes than its predecessor. Despite the overtly dark & gloomy subject matter of the album, it’s easy to get lost in George’s lovely vocal delivery. If the album were sung by the likes of a Peter Murphy or Dave Gahan, it may be a tad too heavy. But George weaves his voice into the darkness as a shimmering light that guides the listener through the dark journey. The synths and arrangements are lush, deep, and otherworldly. Take all the best elements of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration album, Tears For Fears’ The Hurting, and add a healthy injection of gothic goodness, and you’ve got the solid foundation upon which Alien Skin is built. Alien Skin is as original as it gets.
In 2012 Alien Skin released ‘Ghost In The Rain’, which continued the theme of darker, yet hopeful synth-pop. This was my favourite Alien Skin album until the most recent album dropped. Each Alien Skin release becomes stronger and more solid in terms of songwriting, arranging and production. Just when you think perhaps George has reached the zenith of his career, he drops another dark masterpiece. Indeed, one can say that each release IS better than the last.
And thus we arrive at The Secret Garden………
The Secret Garden is an album of 11 brilliant pop gems, 13 if you opt for purchasing the album via Bandcamp.com (which I highly recommend, btw!). The Bandcamp option gives you two exclusive acoustic tracks that are unavailable elsewhere. I strongly suggest purchasing the album via Bandcamp.
The Secret Garden kicks off with the title track, which is a lovely ballad of sorts that finds George singing about his place of refuge, a place, real or imagined, where he can turn for solace and relief from the buffetings of the outside world. I find this concept easy to relate to, as the process of creating music in my studio is my own personal ‘Secret Garden’ if you will, where I can feel at home and at peace. Musically the track conjures up feelings of vintage Depeche Mode, Dream Academy, and some of Erasure’s more melancholy work.
My favourite track on the album is ‘Sunny Day’. It’s a light-hearted and mellow song about enjoying the simplicity of a sunshine-filled day with a loved one. Some of the most beautiful and poetic lyrics George has written to date. Its upbeat and jazzy feel provides a beautiful contrast to some of the album’s darker songs. Another personal favourite of mine is ’19th Century Girl’. It’s got a groovy beat, and the chorus is one I keep finding myself humming hours after I’ve listened to it. As with all of Alien Skin’s songs, each track on The Secret Garden is infused with dark elements that set the tone for a truly epic journey into the world as seen through the eyes of a soul who is keenly aware of life and the deep emotions that surround us. Each track oozes life, albeit the darker side of it. However, saying that the album occupies a dark space isn’t to say that it’s a depressing album. Not by any stretch is it depressing. Low-key and pensive, to be sure, but not depressing. Rather, it lifts you up by bringing you down to George’s view of life. Most of the album is slower ballad fare, but each one draws you in with its own unique story and melancholy vibe.
The musical arrangements are the biggest attraction for me, but the way George’s voice brings each song to life is what really drives it home for me.
The Secret Garden is the perfect album to listen to on a rainy afternoon, or snowy evening. It evokes those wistful moments of personal reflection when one finds one’s self contemplating the ups and downs of life.
From a musician’s perspective, the songs on The Secret Garden are gloriously vibrant in how big and spacious the arrangements are. George uses lush, evolving synth pads to create that massive ambiance. It transports you into another dimension where the songs come alive. It’s larger than life. He captures this epic feel superbly on this album. The rhythms are precise, sparse and tight as can be. As with previous Alien Skin albums, The Secret Garden features a nice balance of vintage analogue synthesizers and modern digital synths. Many synth-pop albums fall victim to the very technology used to make them, which is to say that many artists focus more on cool sounds or f/x and studio tricks to attract the listener, as opposed to writing an actual song that can stand on its own merit. In other words, there should always be a song in there despite the technology. Alien Skin never falls victim to his own technology. His songs are all built upon a solid musical foundation of great melody and fluid harmonies. This is demonstrated very clearly with the acoustic demos of ‘Sunny Day’ and ‘On A Fine Day’. They sound every bit as good in their stripped-down state as they do in their fully-synthesized state. The songs are strong and stand on their own merit. That’s the hallmark of a truly great songwriter.
The Secret Garden is my favourite Alien Skin album thus far. It’s one of those unique albums that must be listened to from start to finish in order to get the full scope of how deeply rich and magnificent it is. It’s dreamy, it’s deliciously dark, deceptively sweet, and nobody does it better than Alien Skin. It’s dark synth-pop at its best.
I’m awarding The Secret Garden five out of five stars. It’s one of the most solid and enjoyable synth-pop albums released this year, and it’s Alien Skin at its very best. The Secret Garden is a must-have for any synth-pop/darkwave fan.
You can pick up your copy at Bandcamp.com, or via all major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby. Support indie artists and buy this album TODAY!
Track Recommendations: The Secret Garden, 19th Century Girl, On A Fine Day, Blue, Sunny Day, Oh Mercy Moonlight
Jimm Kjelgaard – 31 May, 2013